The issue I have with televised charity programmes like Children in Need
Today I am going to speak against everyone’s favourite Christmas tradition – donating money to disabled children.
Before you start calling me a Grinch, listen: There is nothing wrong with giving money to charities that help disabled people (or any other charity for that matter, as they wouldn’t be able to do their job without it).
Many disabled people wouldn’t be able to get mobility aids and adaptive technology they need without help from charities. There are charities that help us access education, medical treatment, find a job or fight against discrimination. Fight for Right is a charity that is now saving the lives of disabled Ukrainians, helping them to flee from war. Their work is important and your support is a crucial part of it.
The problem I have with some charities helping disabled people is about the way they fundraise and deliver their help, because it infringes on the dignity of disabled people.
In this article I am going to talk about the issues I and many other disabled people have with two popular charity programmes V siedmom nebi (Slovakia) and Children in Need (UK).
The ableist heaven
V siedmom nebi (Seventh Heaven) is a family tv show produced by TV JOJ. It originally started to air on TV Markíza in 2008 under the name Modré z neba. The initial concept was that people could go on the show to fulfill the wish for themselves or someone else. You had to pass some challenges and after you did the producers of the show would grant your wish, be it meeting a celebrity or going on a trip to Disney world. After a few episodes the show moved from this concept to granting the wishes of people who were dealing with some hardships like poverty, disability, domestic abuse, death in the family or terminal illness. When TV Markíza got the new director in 2013, the show got canceled.
Vilo Rozboril, the host of Modré z neba, moved to TV Joj and took the show with him. In 2014 it started airing again under the name V siedmom nebi. Currently it is on every Sunday during Advent.
Unfortunately Rozboril didn’t only take the concept of the show to the new station but also all its issues.
Same as any other TV programme, V siedmom nebi needs to have good ratings to survive. Its appeal (similar to many charitable tv shows) lies in its ability to move the audience with emotional stories.
Making people feel compassion towards others is absolutely fine. Being able to sympathize with other people is actually a survival mechanism because it compels us to help the vulnerable members of society. Many charities appeal to our emotions to raise money for their cause or to recruit volunteers. The problem of V siedmom nebi is that it does this at the expense of people’s dignity.
During one episode of V siedmom nebi there are usually several stories. At the beginning of each story Rozboril will meet with ‘The Giver’ who will tell him the story of the people they wish to help, so the audience has all the information from the start. Despite this when Rozboril actually goes to those people he interviews them about their story again, asking them to relive traumatic experiences like abuse or death of a loved one. When he talks to disabled people especially children he would often focus on the negative impact the disability had on their lives. He would ask them about being bullied, feeling left out because they cannot play sports with their classmates, hospital visits and painful medical treatments. He then proceeds to ask their parents to share some more painful memories and private medical details or financial struggles. He usually won’t stop until he gets at least one person to start crying on camera.
Having those children listen to their parents saying that they will never be like their peers or how hard it is to take care of them, must be horrible. Furthermore, it is very likely that as some of the children get older, they will be embarrassed to have appeared on the show. I find it exploitative to have any children (not just disabled ones) to appear in this type of show because they cannot fully consent to it.
V siedmom nebi and TV Joj even got fined for this approach by Rada pre vysielanie a retransmisiu, a watchdog that is there to ensure that media uphold human rights in their content. In 2020 they issued a fine of thirty thousand euros for infringement of the human dignity of two abused children that appeared on the show.
When the show was still produced by TV Markíza it got critised by its creator Adriana Kronerová who said for the blog O médiách: The current version of Modré z neba has nothing in common with what we wanted the programme to be when we created it in 2008. When we came up with the idea for Modré z neba we wanted to be a show where people’s dreams come true. Not only for able-bodied people, not only for ill people, not only for disadvantaged people or disabled people but simply for everyone.”
“To have a balanced selection of people we picked the protagonists from different age groups, backgrounds and minorities.
Our goal was to create a show that would bring happiness not only to people featured on it, but also to those watching it at home. It definitely wasn’t supposed to be about emotional manipulation and turning human suffering into an attraction for profit,” she added.
Help from nightmares
When I was younger I had nightmares about Rozboril knocking on my door and I am eternally grateful that none of my friends or family ever decided to “grant me a wish.” Many of my disabled friends feel the same way.
In instances where the protagonists of the story are disabled adults the episodes basically turn into inspiration porn. The people in these stories are painted as superheroes who can overcome all the barriers on their own. They are usually in a relationship and their partner is depicted as an angel. Both of these are harmful stereotypes and perpetuating them hurts disabled people in real life.
If the protagonist of the story is a disabled adult who wasn’t able to “overcome their disability” and they are unemployed, live with their parents and need 24/7 care, Rozboril will instantly infantilise them and talk mainly to their parents. Although the parents often mention how the social security system in Slovakia is failing them and what support is missing, the show still frames their struggles as a personal tragedy instead of a societal issue. In these cases the “wish” is often getting a new car, a mobility aid or a course of expensive physical therapy. After the wish is granted the family will come to the studio all dolled up to talk about how Rozboril’s help made their life easier. This narrative makes the audience believe that nothing needs to change in order to create equality for disabled people. The only thing we need is Vilo Rozboril sending us on a vacation in Egypt and we will be happy.
Despite the fact that Rozboril often invites politicians, wealthy businessmen or celebrities to help “grant the wish” none of these people ever used this experience as a motivation to bring real change for vulnerable people in Slovakia. For them it is just PR and for Rozboril it is a way to make money off of suffering.
Charity with dignity
“What do you want then? To cancel the show, so there will be no one helping those people?”
I don’t think programs like V siedmom nebi should exist because the “help” they offer should already be provided by the government. We need to stop relying on the compassion of individuals and build compassionate systems. Unfortunately, we still live in a dystopia where we need charities to provide people with basic human rights. Yes, housing, medical treatment, mobility aids, adaptive technology and most other “wishes” that V siedmom nebi grants are basic human rights and vulnerable people should not be required to share private medical details, relieve trauma or cry on camera to get access to them.
So what do I want V siedmom nebi to do? I would want them to stop exploiting, humiliating and traumatising vulnerable people for views.
You can make your audience feel compassion without having children cry on camera. I want them to start treating people, they claim to help, with dignity and respect. I want them to stop infantilising disabled adults. I want them to stop spreading inspiration porn because there is nothing inspirational about disabled people living their lives. I want them to encourage disability pride instead of pity. I want them to use their voice and influence for advocacy so people wouldn’t have to go to charities to have their basic needs met. And if they are really committed to helping vulnerable people I would encourage them to listen to disabled and disadvantaged people when we call them out. They should go and learn from OMD v SR how to help disabled people without infringing on our dignity. They could even employ disabled people on their production team to get their perspective on the framing of each story. It could save them a lot of money on fines.
What do children need?
Children in Need is an annual televised fundraiser for disabled and disadvantaged children in the UK organised by BBC. It was established in 1980 and since then it has raised over 1,5 billion pounds. Disabled content creator Nina Tame (go follow her, she is great) said it is sort of a British institution. While I knew about their existence I started getting curious about them, when Nina and Disabled Eliza – another disabled activist I follow (you should follow them, too) started voicing their misgivings about the programme. I watched a few of their videos and while they are far better than V siedmom nebi they are not great either. Let’s start with what makes them better than V siedmom nebi. In the videos I saw they were fundraising for organisations that work with disadvantaged children. By doing this they make their help more impactful because they are supporting organisations that help multiple children long term and understand their needs instead of just providing one person with a quick fix to one of their problems. The issue starts with how they fundraise. Each organisation was introduced by a child they helped and while there was significantly less crying and humiliation in those videos than in the episodes of V siedmom nebi, the kids were still asked to share their medical history and painful symptoms or talk about traumatic experiences like losing a parent. In the words of Nina, this is gross. It violated their right to privacy and having it televised and put on the internet forever could retraumatise them later in life.
During their annual telethon there is a choir of children that performs some “inspirational” song. Last year the song was Fix you by Coldplay.
Let’s get something straight, shall we? Disabled children don’t need to be fixed, or pitied and they don’t exist to inspire you.
If you want to help us, listen to us
Children in Need has replied to criticism from Nina, Eliza and other disabled creators by defending their portrayal of disabled people. They said: “As a charity, we are passionate about and committed to, celebrating and empowering the children and young people we support, and do so every day of the year alongside our 2,200 local charities and projects who work tirelessly to help make a difference. Our programming champions the young people who share their stories, which above all, highlight how BBC Children in Need funding supports them to thrive and be the best they can be.”
If this was true, why do they refuse to listen to disabled people critiquing them? Nina was born disabled and has a disabled kid, while Eliza was part of their choir in the past and described it as a negative experience. Surely their insights could help Children in Need to do better by disabled children.
Same as Nina and Eliza I am not telling you to boycott Children in Need because despite their flaws they still do good. However, if you really want to help disabled and disadvantaged children find a charity to donate to long term, ideally one led by disabled people. A donation once a year isn’t enough to help them keep doing their work. And if you can’t afford to support a charity financially, go volunteer for them. Follow disabled activists on social media to learn about ableism and when you see it, call it out. Demand accessibility even when you personally don’t need it. Share this article.
In the upcoming year give disabled people a gift we really need: equality.